How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Law and Justice (PiS) party’s stunning victory in Poland’s October 25 parliamentary elections has left analysts wondering just how worried they should be. PiS won an absolute majority in the Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm—the first time any party has done so since 1989. Since PiS also controls the presidency (party candidate Andrzej Duda was elected in August), it has a unique opportunity to conduct a legislative revolution in Poland.
After what happened in Hungary, where a similar right-wing populist party won a super-majority and changed the constitution in ways that diminished democracy, entrenched the ruling party’s power, and enervated the IMF and foreign banks, many think something similar is possible in Poland. Indeed, there are several things to worry about.
Foremost among them is the worldview of the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. His noted suspicion of both Moscow and Brussels and track record of leading witch-hunts against domestic opponents have raised major questions about Poland’s foreign policy orientation and adherence to democratic principles. Last time Kaczynski was in power, in 2006–07, he ran afoul of Germany and the EU by fighting for disproportionate voting power for Poland in EU institutions; his argument was that if Germany hadn’t killed six million Poles between 1939 and 1945, Poland would have a far higher population. This sort of discourse offended the Germans and held up negotiations on the Treaty of Nice, which sought to move the EU toward majority voting, rather than unanimity, on a number of issues.
In the West, some of the discourse promoted by Kaczynski’s PiS party would be considered that of a fringe party. The party is closely affiliated with fringe strands of the Polish Catholic Church and the controversial independent Catholic radio station Radio Maryja, which has promoted conspiracy theories such as the concept of Judeo-communism, which essentially blames Jews for imposing communism on Poland. The show’s listeners make up a significant part of the PiS voter base, and Kaczynski has repeatedly defended it.
It is hard to think of another “conservative” party in the European Union that promotes such extremist nationalist discourse. Perhaps that is why PiS rose to power this year by running far more moderate candidates, Duda and prospective prime minister Beata Szydlo, who are careful to be less extreme than Kaczynski. For example, when Kaczynski claimed that refugees are “bringing in all kinds of parasites” to Europe, speaking of “cholera in the Greek islands" and "dysentery in Vienna,” Duda echoed his statements in subtler terms, asking that the government “ensure that Poles are well protected against epidemiological risks” if it chooses to take in refugees. While the language is less inflammatory, the sentiment is the same.
Given the instability of Polish parliaments since 1989, party leaders have often preferred to pull the strings behind the scenes.Make no mistake, with 235 of the 460 seats in the Polish lower house of parliament, it is Kaczynski who will be calling the shots. His behind-the-scenes power was already on display at the PiS victory celebration, when Kaczynski offered only guarded support to the prospective prime minister, Beata Szydlo, noting that she will serve for a full four-year term only if she turns out to be good at the job. Given the instability of Polish parliaments since 1989, party leaders have often preferred to pull the strings behind the scenes, retaining the power to keep or replace prime ministers when politically expedient.
In terms of policy priorities, Kaczynski may see the recent victory as an opportunity to avenge the death of his brother, former President Lech Kaczynski, who died along with 94 other top Polish officials and his wife in a plane crash in 2010. Jaroslaw Kaczynski blames the crash at a Russian military airport in Smolensk on a Russian conspiracy to assassinate his brother, who was flying to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre perpetrated against Polish officers by the Soviet secret police. It was covered up as a Nazi crime until Boris Yeltsin admitted Soviet responsibility in the 1990s.
Lech Kaczynski had been planning to give a tough speech accusing Moscow of aggressive acts, such as its then-recent invasion of Georgia, so the conspiracy theory seemed plausible. Nonetheless, investigators have concluded that bad weather, listening to drunk advisers, and pilot error were the real causes of the tragedy. In turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to use the crash to generate a rapprochement in Russian-Polish relations, by offering what seemed like heartfelt condolences and seeking to forge cooperation on a number of issues, such as visa-free travel to Poland for residents of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic.
But Russia’s efforts never took root. Kaczynski and PiS have since promoted their own version of the Smolensk conspiracy. The plane that crashed was a Russian-made Tupolev 154M that had been refurbished in Russia four years before. Conspiracy theorists also allege that the amount of debris at the site is inconsistent with a crash landing and indicate that several explosions occurred on board just before the crash into a forest of birch trees near the airport. Given that Kaczynski is the leading proponent of this theory, relations between Poland and Russia can be expected to deteriorate further in the coming months.
The good news is that Kaczynski’s apparent obsession with Russia could keep Poland firmly anchored in the West. At the same time, however, Poland’s relations with the European Union are likely to deteriorate. The new PiS government will seek to enhance Poland’s sovereignty by emphasizing bilateral relations with other European states and by building up Warsaw’s influence in eastern Europe rather than by playing the role of good citizen in Brussels, as the former Civic Platform government did. Under Civic Platform, Poland established an outstanding alliance and deep trust with Germany. For Poland, this has meant gaining access to the core decision-making process of the European Union. For Germany, Poland has been a constant ally at a time of considerable turbulence in European affairs. PiS will want to stand up for its own interests now, without a privileged alliance with Germany. Kaczynski’s political rivalry with EU Council President Donald Tusk, a former leader of PiS’ rival Civic Platform, certainly does not help matters.
In addition to increasing Poland’s independence from Moscow and Brussels, PiS will seek to turn Poland into an even more conservative Catholic state. Poland’s identity, according to PiS, is Catholic and must be assiduously guarded from secularists in Brussels—just as much as from Orthodox and Muslim invaders from the other borders. And so, goodbye to gay rights, in-vitro fertilization, abortion in the case of potential harm to the mother, and other liberal policies, which PiS promised during the campaign. Goodbye, too, to the notion that Poland might house 7,000 refugees from the war in Syria and other conflicts.
The new PiS government has promised to break decisively from the neoliberal policies that have governed Poland for the last 25 years.One question mark that hangs over PiS is the extent to which the party might damage the institutions of democracy by packing state institutions with political appointees, changing the constitution to achieve its various aims, undermining prosecutorial independence, and packing the constitutional court. Last time he was in power, in 2006–07, Kaczynski went on a determined witch-hunt to identify and fire from state jobs any collaborators with the former communist secret police. Many felt that the process was flawed and politically motivated. The many resulting controversies helped to bring down the government.
It would be dangerous to underestimate the chances of such a reversal in Poland. The hope is that a new guard of 40-something PiS officials with deeper international connections and a different sensibility will restrain Kaczynski and push for a platform more compatible with Western norms. But it’s hard to imagine how previously unknown politicians hand-picked by Kaczynski who share many of his views can be counted on to stand up to the party leader.
Another reversal in the offing could be economic. The new PiS government has promised to break decisively from the neoliberal policies that have governed Poland for the last 25 years. A shift of this magnitude and nature in Poland, the leading liberal reformer in central and eastern Europe, has far-reaching symbolic importance.
Although Poland’s economy has enjoyed massive growth in recent years and convergence with the West, many Poles feel that they have been left out. Although Warsaw and some other cities have converged with Western living standards, rural Poland has been left to stagnate. And although Poland’s economy has improved, moreover, the country lies next to some of the wealthiest countries of the world where living standards are higher. Hence, many Poles continue to work abroad.
PiS capitalized on economic discontent by offering what amounts to a very leftist (or, rather, a Catholic socialist) set of economic policies. The party promises to increase the minimum wage; to do away with short-term contracts and fake self-employment contracts that firms force employees to sign to avoid benefit payments; to roll back increases to the retirement age, especially for women; to improve family benefits; to encourage larger families through more generous social payments; to spend more on children; to cancel pension privatization for good; to tax foreign banks’ assets; to wage a special tax on foreign retailers’ big box stores; and to somehow create more jobs for Poles at home, in part by limiting central bank independence and stimulating the economy.
None of these are terrible ideas, but they will put an end to an era of neoliberal economic policy. Western banks are already nervous that they will see a reversal similar to what happened in Hungary, when they were hit with a new tax and other measures that cut profit margins and reduced their market share. The previous government had already strayed toward a more statist economic policy, but without targeting foreign investors. This PiS platform will mark a decisive shift. The impact of that change will be far-reaching, since Poland has long been a model to other central and eastern European countries.
One can hope that the Szydlo government will be a kinder, gentler nationalist government, but in the background lurks Kaczynski, who believes that refugees from Syria carry diseases and that the Russians assassinated his brother and are probably after him as well. He is sensible enough to know that he is unelectable. But he is still there, running the show. And what a show it will be.